6 Songs Written About Real-Life Disasters

For generations, song-makers have borrowed from life to craft tunes, taking even the most difficult of disasters and setting them to song. Maybe as a way of coping, maybe as a form of chronicling, these songs become memories that outlive any headline. The events they’re based on, however sad and desperate, become forever trapped in the amber of a melody. Here are 6 songs that were written about real-life disasters.

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1. “When the Levee Breaks” – Led Zeppelin

If it keeps on raining, the levee’s going to break / When the levee breaks, we’ll have no place to stay, plays the Led Zeppelin classic, “When the Levee Breaks,” set to an ominous beat and crying harmonica.

The song was originally written and recorded by blues duo Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie. The pair wrote the tune in 1929 not long after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 had claimed hundreds of lives and affected thousands more who were forced to evacuate the Mississippi Delta area.

2. “Cities in Dust” – Siouxsie and the Banshees

Water was running, children were running / You were running out of time / Under the mountain, a golden fountain / Were you praying at the Lares’ shrine? / But oh, your city lies in dust, my friend, plays the dance-pop hit, “Cities in Dust,” from Siouxsie and the Banshees.

The cryptic lyrics describe what happened to the city of Pompeii, the ancient site of a volcanic eruption that buried the city and several hundreds of its inhabitants in molten rock and ash.

3. “Springhill Mining Disaster” – The Dubliners

In the town of Springhill, Nova Scotia / Down in the dark of the Cumberland Mine / There’s blood on the coal / And the miners lie / In roads that never saw sun or sky, opens the solemn Dubliners’ tune, “Springhill Mining Disaster.”

Chillingly chronicling any one of the three mining disasters that plagued Nova Scotia’s Springhill coalfield in 1891, 1956, and 1958, the Dubliners’ song is haunting as the Irish folk band bellows Bone and blood is the price of coal.

4. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” – Gordon Lightfoot

With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more / Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty / That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed / When the gales of November came early, warns Gordon Lightfoot in his legendary song story, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

The song was written and released less than a year after the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior in 1975. It details the carrier ship’s final voyage and the loss of its entire crew.

5. “The Titanic (When That Great Ship Went Down)” – Pete Seeger

It was sad when that great ship went down / It was sad, it was sad, it was sad when that great ship went down / Husbands and wives, little children lost their lives / It was sad when that great ship went down, Pete Seeger sings to a chipper strum.

That great ship he sang of was the passenger liner Titanic, which struck an iceberg while traveling across the North Atlantic Ocean in 1912. It sunk and took an estimated 1,500 lives with it.

6. “We Didn’t Start The Fire” – Billy Joel

We didn’t start the fire / It was always burning / Since the world’s been turning / We didn’t start the fire / No, we didn’t light it But we tried to fight it, sings Billy Joel in “We Didn’t Start The Fire.”

The song isn’t about one disaster, but decades worth of them rolled into one song. Written as a way to chronicle what had occurred in Joel’s lifetime up until the age of 40, “We Didn’t Start The Fire” is rife with images of war, nuclear weaponry, division, and destruction. Marilyn Monroe and triumphant baseball teams also make an appearance in the song, but overall it is a whiplash-inducing list of tragedies that shaped the world in the latter half of the 20th century.

Photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

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  1. How bour WASNT THAT A MIGHTY STORM traditional folk song revised by ERic Von Schmidt and Tom Rush about the Galveston Flood/Hurrican…of 1900 Still the largest natural disaster in American History.

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